Inside the Blunders That Plunged the College Admission Season Into Disarray

By Erica L. Green and Zach Montague

There were just days left to process a batch of federal financial aid applications when Education Department officials made a fateful discovery: 70,000 emails from students all over the country, containing reams of essential data.

They were sitting in an inbox, untouched.

That discovery last week started a panicked, three-day crash effort by more than 200 of the department’s employees, including Richard Cordray, the nation’s top student aid official, to read through each of the emails one by one and extract crucial identifying information required for financial aid. The students’ futures depended on it.

“It needs to get untangled,” Mr. Cordray told his staff members on Thursday, according to recordings of two back-to-back meetings that The New York Times obtained. “So, you know, I’m getting pretty impatient.”

An exasperated staff member shot back, “We worked all night long — literally — all night.”

It was another setback in the botched rollout of a new version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, that millions of families and thousands of schools rely on to determine how students will pay for college. Three years ago, Congress ordered the Education Department to revamp the new form to make it easier and more accessible. It has been anything but.

For nearly six months, students and schools navigated a bureaucratic mess caused by severe delays in launching the website and processing critical information. A series of blunders by the department — from a haphazard rollout to technical meltdowns — have left students and schools in limbo and plunged the most critical stage of the college admissions season into disarray.

‘Hanging on by their fingernails’

In a normal year, students would be sorting through their financial aid offers by now, giving them plenty of time to prepare for the traditional decision day on May 1, when many schools expect commitments.

But this is not a normal year.

Because of the delays in the FAFSA rollout, schools do not have the information they need from the government to assemble financial aid offers. Students have had to postpone decisions about where to attend college because they have no idea how much aid they will receive.

Many schools are pushing back their enrollment deadlines to give students more time to figure out their finances, throwing college budgets and wait lists into chaos.

The Education Department has promised to meet a self-imposed deadline of Friday to start sending students’ financial information to schools. A Biden administration official, who asked for anonymity to discuss details of the process, said the department had begun sending out “small batches” of data over the weekend.

But the task ahead is monumental. The department is working with 5.7 million applications that are in so far, but more than 10 million additional ones are expected to roll in as students make their way through the process, which is still not functioning without delays.“Financial aid offices across the country are hanging on by their fingernails at this point,” said Justin Draeger, the chief executive of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

A broken system

The goal of the revamped FAFSA system was to simplify the notoriously bewildering form by whittling it down from more than 100 questions to fewer than 40 and making it more accessible to lower-income students.

But it was not ready to roll out in October, when the FAFSA form usually becomes available for students to submit their families’ financial details to the government.

In late December, when the system finally launched, the problems were immediately apparent.

Technical malfunctions prevented many students from gaining access to the form on the website. Students reported being repeatedly kicked out or locked out of the form, or hung up on after holding for 30 minutes to three hours for someone to answer the department’s help line.

The bungled rollout has upended a critical function of the federal student aid process.

The government needs the FAFSA information to calculate how much federal aid students should receive. The schools, in turn, need that number to make their own calculations about how much a student should expect to pay at that particular college or university, after tallying up tuition and any extra scholarships.

For many students, the FAFSA estimate, which is sometimes received before they even hear back from any of the schools they applied to, is the first sign of hope that college is within reach.

Students in limbo

Andrea, a senior at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School in Colorado, will be the first person in her family to attend college. She has her heart set on Duke University.

But first, she has to navigate FAFSA.

“It’s agonizing,” said Andrea, 17, who asked to be identified by her first name to protect her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico and are undocumented. “It’s deeper than a form. It’s our futures.”

Her case collided with perhaps the most pernicious flaw in the rollout: The new form froze out applicants who could not provide a social security number for themselves or their parent or caregiver, something that had not been an issue with the old form.

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